Pilgrims, Cowboys, and Loneliness

The provocative title of Stephen Marche’s Atlantic article, “Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?” invites immediate skepticism as the latest iteration in the sub-genre of technological alarmism about the internet. Like much of this literature, Marche’s writing is far more thoughtful and measured than his simplistic title would indicate. He admits, for instance, that “Loneliness is certainly not something that Facebook or Twitter or any of the lesser forms of social media is doing to us. We are doing it to ourselves.” He also makes the interesting point that Facebook requires a relentless and exhausting performative dance on a digital stage. But he also makes some problematic claims. A range of responses have critiqued Marche’s use of studies and statistics, but what caught my eye was Marche’s use of history. In one passage, worth quoting at length, Marche writes:

Loneliness is at the American core, a by-product of a long-standing national appetite for independence: The Pilgrims who left Europe willingly abandoned the bonds and strictures of a society that could not accept their right to be different. They did not seek out loneliness, but they accepted it as the price of their autonomy. The cowboys who set off to explore a seemingly endless frontier likewise traded away personal ties in favor of pride and self-respect. The ultimate American icon is the astronaut: Who is more heroic, or more alone? The price of self-determination and self-reliance has often been loneliness. But Americans have always been willing to pay that price. ... Self-invention is only half of the American story, however. The drive for isolation has always been in tension with the impulse to cluster in communities that cling and suffocate. The Pilgrims, while fomenting spiritual rebellion, also enforced ferocious cohesion. The Salem witch trials, in hindsight, read like attempts to impose solidarity—as do the McCarthy hearings. The history of the United States is like the famous parable of the porcupines in the cold, from Schopenhauer’s Studies in Pessimism—the ones who huddle together for warmth and shuffle away in pain, always separating and congregating.

I always get annoyed when historians mount their high horses to harumph about how Americans don’t know anything about history. But indulge me for one paragraph while I do just that. There are two major problems with Marche’s use of history here. First, it’s inaccurate. There’s a big difference between “loneliness,” “independence” “self-determination” and “self-reliance,” but Marche seems to conflate them all together. The Pilgrims were more about religious reform than religious independence, and leaving one place for another place doesn’t make you lonely. Or alone. Or independent. Or self-reliant. As Marche himself admits, they also pursued their “spiritual rebellion” in an intensely communal manner.

Then there’s the cowboys. Oh boy. A generation of “New Western Historians” have pretty conclusively dispelled the idea of the self-reliant, independent wrangler. Cowboys were always deeply reliant on others: the federal government to remove plains Indians and enforce ranching and riparian rights, or a host of merchants, storekeepers, and meat-packers that inextricably tied them to national and international markets. And I don’t even understand what “traded away personal ties in favor of pride and self-respect” even means.

Image courtesy of Yale Collection of Western Americana, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Collection

My problem is less with the accuracy of Marche’s history but in how he uses it. I don’t expect an article in the Atlantic to delve into the historiographical intricacies of the Puritans or the problematic nature of Frederick Jackson Turner’s frontier thesis. What Marche is talking about is American mythology, not some “core” of the American character or “actual” history. If he had made this distinction clearer, it’s a quite relevant and important point. Independence, self-reliance, self-determination: these are cherished ideals that undergird many of the stories Americans tell themselves about their past. And it’s fascinating to think about how these ideals interact with the separate (but related) reality of both loneliness and community in a present-day context.

Alexis de Tocqueville tackled this paradox between individualism and communalism two centuries ago in Democracy in America. The French political thinker toured America in 1831 and wrote an expansive account of American institutions, history, society, and character. A major theme running through Democracy in America was the tension between the individualism produced by a society based on equality with institutions and associations based on communal life. De Tocqueville argued that social equality had the downside of producing immensely self-centered people. In true de Tocqueville fashion, he penned one passage that has a ring of timelessness to it - Marche could have used it word-for-word in his characterization of present-day loneliness:

The first thing that strikes the observation is an innumerable multitude of men, all equal and alike, incessantly endeavoring to procure the petty and paltry pleasures with which they glut their lives. Each of them, living apart, is as a stranger to the fate of all the rest; his children and his private friends constitute to him the whole of mankind. As for the rest of his fellow citizens, he is close to them, but he does not see them; he touches them, but he does not feel them; he exists only in himself and for himself alone; and if his kindred still remain to him, he may be said at any rate to have lost his country.

But de Tocqueville goes on to describe how American society during the Jacksonian era combated the effects of isolation brought about by social equality, perhaps most importantly through associational life: “In no country in the world has the principle of association been more successfully used or applied to a greater multitude of objects than in America. “ Americans in the 1820s and 1830s loved forming groups: political parties, religious sects, reform movements. This was the age of Joseph Smith and Mormonism, massive evangelical revivals, temperance movements, and the American Anti-Slavery Society. So what does it say that one of the most famous historical observers of American society highlighted the intense communalism of that society? My point is not that de Tocqueville was right or wrong, it’s that Americans and critics of American society have always wrestled with the balance between communalism and individualism.

A lack of historicity is my major problem with “Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?”. Marche uses history as a vague, unexamined point of departure for the present, oftentimes veering into  trope of a lost “Golden Age.” He cites some studies demonstrating, for instance, that the number of households with one inhabitant has increased from 1950, or that the number of personal confidants decreased from the 1980s to the present. Although Eric Klinenberg thoughtfully disputes Marche’s claim that “various studies have shown loneliness rising drastically over a very short period of recent history,” I’m less concerned with the accuracy of Marche’s claims than his treatment of history itself.

There’s a tendency when writing critiques of present-day society to make a direct implication that things are fundamentally new and are changing for the worse. And this tendency seems to be even more prevalent in diatribes against technology, which operate under an often-unexamined assumption that technology X (the telegraph, the automobile, the Internet, social media) has irrevocably reshaped our world. It’s useful to talk about the effects of technological changes: there are many ways in which Facebook and social media has, in fact, fundamentally changed our society. But too often these articles assume that any and every change is a) something fundamentally new, and b) directly attributable to the technology itself. Marche neatly encapsulates this lack of historicity in two sentences: “Nostalgia for the good old days of disconnection would not just be pointless, it would be hypocritical and ungrateful. But the very magic of the new machines, the efficiency and elegance with which they serve us, obscures what isn’t being served: everything that matters.”

Facebook isn’t magic and the “good old days of disconnection” only exist in our historical imagination. Not only do cowboys have an American Professional Rodeo Association, the group has its own Facebook page. As de Tocqueville reminds us, we’ve wrestled with the contradictions between loneliness, individualism, and communalism for a long, long time. What Facebook has done is change some of the channels and format of these tensions. Like any technology, it needs to be more thoughtfully placed in its historical context. History is not a golden age or a black box or a passive point of departure for a completely new paradigm. Critics of Facebook or Twitter or whatever new technology will be undermining the “American core” in twenty years should do a better job of keeping this in mind.